Keaton Jennings hopes a more relaxed approach can help him make a successful return to “one of the toughest jobs in Test cricket.”
Jennings, who has been recalled for a second stint as Alastair Cook’s opening partner, knows full-well the challenges of the job and refers to a “dark period” around the time he was dropped previously. But he hopes that a combination of technical work and a fresh mental approach will result in better returns this time.
His recall is, in some ways, quite a surprise. While he has scored centuries in his two most recent first-class innings, they are the only time he has reached 50 in 22 first-class innings since he was dropped last August. In that period, he has averaged just 26.18 in the first-class game after 22 innings realised 576 runs. All of which is hard to square with the coach, Trevor Bayliss, stating that “averaging 40 isn’t enough” for county players trying to force their way into the team. Jennings averaged 24.50 in his first six Tests as an England player but, after a century on debut in India, suffered six single-figure scores – including three ducks – in his next 11 innings.
He does, at least, come into this game after those two centuries. While the first game on a flat pitch at Old Trafford, the second was in a low-scoring match at Trent Bridge and against a strong attack that included Stuart Broad, Jake Ball, Luke Fletcher and Harry Gurney.
Whatever happens, Jennings is determined to enjoy the experience. He hopes to not only block out any criticism but not be too critical of himself. And, most of all, he wants to simply focus on the pleasure of playing Test cricket.
“It might be the last Test that I play,” he admitted. “So I really want to enjoy the feeling and the five days of tough, hard cricket. I want to play with a free, happy heart and take in every moment I can.
“I’m always determined and I’m never the sort of guy to take things for granted. I’ve never taken my foot off the gas in life. If anything, I’ve pushed the gas too hard to try to make things work. That’s why I stress that I want to enjoy this week.
“It’s special being here, special being in front of a variety of cameras and people and playing in front of big crowds and big viewerships. I’m in a really privileged position.”
While he admits he has tinkered with his technique since he was dropped – and various England coaches, including Mark Ramprakash and Graham Thorpe continued to work with him – he suggests that the more important progress came in his mental approach and his determination to see cricket as just one aspect of his life.
“The England team management give you as much support and assistance as you need,” he said. “The support is there. I’ve worked pretty closely with Andy Flower and my dad – Ray Jennings – is always a big supporter. And my uncle is a sports psychologist.
“Opening the batting is one of the toughest jobs in Test cricket, especially in England. The new ball is obviously a crucial phase of four-day cricket and Test cricket. That’s what makes Alastair Cook invaluable to our environment. But it’s tough, hence the fact there’s been a lot of guys rotated around him.
“I’ve tried to address as much as I can. At the end of the week, I suppose there’ll be more talk about anything technical and if changes have worked and if there are runs on the board that’s great. If not, there’s more addressing to be done. I suppose that will only be answered at the end of the week. You will only get judged on the amount of runs you score.
“I’d like to think I’ve addressed certain issues, but I won’t come out and start batting right-handed. I won’t suddenly start triggering or moving around because the product I’ve had for the last 25 years has worked. It’s about fine-tuning to try to better myself. I’ve looked at myself personally and addressed bits and pieces in my life to get better.
“I don’t think we sometimes realise that cricketers are people. There’s a lot of things that impact your performance. With cricket, you can do everything right and things just don’t work out sometimes. So, I’m really excited for this week. I want to play with a happy heart and a big smile on my face.”
One of those things he has continued to involve himself in away from cricket is a degree in accountancy. Indeed, with this call-up coming as something of a surprise, he was forced to miss an exam in London on Wednesday afternoon. And for the first time, either; he confesses he has been pursuing the degree for eight years.
“It seems to be taking forever to complete,” he said. “I’m really trying to get it finished.
“I’ve tried to focus on myself and my own internal processes and belief systems. I’ve moved to address certain things, not just technique but also in my life and the way I go about things. I’ve tried to not read things or be on Twitter and really enjoy my cricket again. Having moved to Lancashire over the winter, I’ve really found that flow and that enjoyment around it.
“How did I cope with the scrutiny last time? You try and lean on your support structure; lean on people you trust. You lean on anybody at the time that you feel is going to make a difference and pull you through that dark period. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to address: the way I deal with media and when I walk into a room with 25 cameras. There’s a variety of things that come with being in the position I’m in right now.
“But this is a special moment and I want to enjoy it.”
While Pakistan’s Wednesday training session was badly hit by rain – they were forced into the indoor nets – England enjoyed a long outdoor session in the afternoon. As well as Jennings, other familiar faces returned to training, including Ryan Sidebottom, who is now on the coaching staff at Surrey, and Ant Botha, who is on the coaching staff with Nottinghamshire.